Keeping the Light by Rabba Claudia Marbach

December 12, 2018

Hanukkah has come and gone but the darkest days of winter are still ahead. Although one cannot schedule miracles, I sometimes wish that Hanukkah would fall in late January. I need an infusion of light, hope and miracles when winter has dragged on and the white snow has turned grey. How do we hold on to the light for the rest of winter? How do we contain within us the closeness to God symbolized by those little, yet miraculous, lights?

One way is to cultivate the light within. Mishlei 20:27 tells us

נֵר ה’ נִשְׁמַת אָדָם חֹפֵשׂ כָּל־חַדְרֵי־בָטֶן׃  

The candle of God is the soul of a person, revealing all his inmost parts.

The Sefat Emet uses this pasuk to connect the lights of Hanukkah to the candle used to search for chametz before Pesach. (I know that it’s a bit early to think about Pesach, but bear with me!)

Before Pesach we use a candle to search for hidden chametz. The Sefat Emet likens chametz to sins – things we want to expunge. So too, he suggests, we should use the candles on Hanukkah to look for what is hidden and not wanted. He says that when it is dark we need the light even more than usual. While we think of Hanukkah as a  time when we spread the light from inside to outside. By connecting those lights to the search for chametz, the Sefat Emet, urges us to use the lights to inspect the internal, and to illuminate any darkness that we may find there. What should that inspection look like? The Sefat Emet notes that Ner (candle) can be read as an acronym for nefesh + ruach (spirit + soul). We should examine our nefesh and ruach. Three months on, let us reexamine our Rosh Hashanah resolutions and rededicate ourselves to those resolutions. Let us look to the health of our nefesh + ruach. We can use the candles to look internally and carry the light of the Hanukkah candles through the winter.  

After Hanukkah we quickly transition to the fast of Asarah b’Tevet. How strange that we celebrate the dedication of the Temple and only a week later we be thrust into mourning for that same Temple. But those two truths are fundamental to us as Rabbinic Jews. We mourn the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. Yet that destruction was the direct precursor to the rabbinic revolution that made Judaism what it is today—and has us celebrate Hanukkah as a rededication holiday and not a military victory. With the loss of the Beit HaMikdash and subsequent exile, we came to reinterpret the pasuk

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם׃ (Exodus 25:8)

 And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.

The substitution of the Mikdash became the synagogue. Rav Chaim of Volozhin, in Nefesh haChaim 1:4, said further that God hinted that  

שממנו תראו וכן תעשו אתם את עצמיכם שתהיו אתם במעשיכם הרצויים כתבנית המשכן וכליו. כולם קדושים ראוים ומוכנים להשרות שכינתי בתוככם ממש

That you should know that the purpose of my desire in building the Mishkan … that you should see and then you should create for yourselves with the blueprint of the Mishkan. That you are all holy and can facilitate My truly ‘living within you’.

Rav Chaim says that we carry that Mishkan with us. Another way to keep the lights of Hanukkah burning is to take the memory of the Ner Tamid that shone in the Temple and relight it within us. What does it mean to make a Mikdash inside of ourselves? Surely to make our lives more holy, to dedicate ourselves to our relationship with God — keeping our  inner Mishkan well lit.

Placing the Hanukkah lights to face outward is an essential part of the mitzvah. How do we light up the outside world?  Yeshayahu 58:10 gives us direction on how to spread the light beyond ourselves:

תָפֵק לָרָעֵב נַפְשֶׁךָ וְנֶפֶשׁ נַעֲנָה תַּשְׂבִּיעַ וְזָרַח בַּחֹשֶׁךְ אוֹרֶךָ וַאֲפֵלָתְךָ כַּצָּהֳרָיִם

And if you draw out your soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall your light rise in darkness, and your gloom be as the noonday…

Yeshayahu says that our lights will shine brighter when we help others who are hungry or afflicted. Like the pirsuma d’nissa of Hanukkah, acts of chesed are a way of spreading the light. The light of one flame is not diminished when it is used to light another. With all the suffering in the world it seems incumbent upon us to share our light.

During the long months of winter to come, we can continue to think about how we all can keep the Hanukkah  lights shining. Let’s keep alive the lights of introspection, holiness and mitzvot and good deeds, within ourselves, our communities and the world around us.

 

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Looking for God in Climate Change posted by Yosef Kanefsky

December 4, 2018

This is personal and self-revelatory. I am sharing it because I think and I hope that it may prove useful.

I am one of those people who has been deeply concerned about climate change since the 1980’s. I have a vivid memory of sitting in the teacher’s lounge in the school at which I was teaching in Elizabeth, NJ in 1987, and asking a fellow faculty member if she’d be willing to give up her car in order to secure an un-climate-changed world for her future grandchildren. She looked at me like I was out of my mind. In a certain way, I guess I was. Yet, here we are.

I have no idea where her grandchildren (if she has any) now live. My grandchild lives in Northern California where, along with millions of other people, she recently breathed “very unhealthful” air for days and days as a result of the tragic and deadly Camp fire. I’m certainly willing to grant that factors other than climate change contributed to the fire, but I’m not willing to grant that climate change was not a significant one. This fire, along with the one that burned just miles from where I live and work, was the latest in a steady global drumbeat of extreme and deadly weather events. Climate change is here.

I have few waking hours these days during which I do not think about this at least once. I am occasionally sad, and I am anxious. Not only about the prospects that await us, but also about the reality that we, the human race, know what’s going on, but are functionally unable to do much about it. Last week’s news that most of the major signatories to the Paris Climate accord are not on track to meet their goals is disappointing, but not really so surprising. (And let’s not even go to the outright denial espoused by our President.)

I am person of religious faith. And a religious “professional” to boot. What do I do now? What do I daven for? How do I act? How do I avoid a state of sad resignation that is both contrary to Jewish faith, and just plain bad for a human living? What are our next steps?

Well, if you are any sort of Maimonidian, you cannot pray that God suck the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere or change the laws of chemistry. God is our beneficent Creator who renews creation daily, but He never changes the underlying rules. You also can’t pray that God compel people to begin to act differently. Free choice is something God doesn’t tamper with. But there are other realms of prayer that we can definitely enter here. The blessings and supplications in our daily davening presume that God does grace human beings with wisdom. And with strength and with courage. Add to this the faith that God is merciful, which is a faith that pervades our prayer, and we have more than enough to start with. We can have the climate change discussion with God.

Davening is a necessary-but-insufficient response though, for any person of religious faith. We always look to back our faith with action. Of course we can and should “green” our personal behavior, our philanthropic behavior, and our political behavior. But there’s something bigger out there to do as well. Something that emerges from the oddly comforting (to me) fact that we are all going to be in this together. All of us. Everybody. And we are all going to need each other in ways that we’ve never needed each other before. Think about the remarkable and inspiring ways in which, over the last 24 months, so many people have expanded their hearts and have gone way out of their way to provide aid and support to hurricane-tossed and fire-singed strangers all over the country.  What we, people of religious faith, need to do now is to actively and intentionally cultivate these bonds of human community and love. For these are the bonds that will mitigate whatever may be coming our way. Opportunities to do this present themselves constantly, really in every human interaction that we have. And they are also out there on much larger scales, available to each one of us, requiring only that we open our eyes to their existence, and have the wisdom, strength and courage, God willing, to energetically pursue them.

There are undoubtedly other ways that people of religious faith can bring the power of that faith to bear on this vast human challenge. This is the moment for all of us who have not yet started, to get going.

I hope this wasn’t “too much information” about my personal emotional state. For whatever it’s worth, just sharing it makes me feel a little better. And it is my hope that, as the old Jewish adage goes, “words that emanate from the heart, enter the heart”.


Winning by Rabbi Barry Gelman

November 26, 2018

nizchuni banai, nizchuni banai

My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me. (Bava Metzia 59b)

I hope these thoughts begin a conversation.

I have been thinking about winning and losing lately. The build up to the midterm elections and their aftermath provide examples of just how far people are willing to go to win.

Personal attacks against candidates and their family members, unverified claims of voter fraud and election tampering are just some of the examples of what candidates and citizens are willing to do.

We know that love and hate can cause people to act in ways that are out of the ordinary or even destructive.  We know this, perhaps, from our own actions, or from watching others. The Midrash (Lechach Tov) and the Gemara (San. 105b) put it well when they state that love and hate corrupts normal behaviour.

במדבר כב, כא ויקם בלעם בבקר ויחבוש את אתונו תנא משום רבי שמעון בן אלעזר אהבה מבטלת שורה של גדולה מאברהם דכתיב (בראשית כא, יד) וישכם אברהם בבקר שנאה מבטלת שורה של גדולה מבלעם שנאמר ויקם בלעם בבקר ויחבוש את אתונו

  • It is stated: “And Balaam rose in the morning and saddled his donkey”(Numbers 22:21). It was taught in a baraita in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar: Love negates the standard conduct of those of prominence. This is derived from Abraham, as it is written: “And Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey” (Genesis 22:3). Atypically, he saddled the donkey himself and he did not wait for his servants. Likewise, hatred negates the standard conduct of those of prominence. This is derived from Balaam, as it is stated: “And Balaam rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey” (Numbers 22:21).

Jewish Law teaches us that there must be other factors that we consider other than getting what we want, even when the stakes are high and the cause noble. Rabbi Soloveitchik makes this point when he talks about retreat regarding sexuality and ultimately claims that the greatest hero is the person who lives in a dialectic between advance and retreat. What is so unfortunate is that people accept this mode of living in their religious life, but not in politics, national, local or communal.

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816 – 1893) uses the episode of Shimon and Levi’s revenge for Dina’s rape to powerfully illustrate how people can go overboard when fighting for even the noblest of causes.

He admits that there was an important reason to punish the people involved in the attack, yet, he also notes this:

:ומ״מ מאש כזה ג״כ יש להזהר הרבה לכוין המקום והזמן. ובל״ז היא מקלקלת הר

“Nevertheless, from such a fire (a righteous cause) one must also be careful to choose the proper time and place otherwise it can lead to great destruction.”

Later in Bereishit, the Netziv adds:

:שע״י כעס נעשה דברים זרים יותר מהנדרש לצורך הענין ובזה יהיה קלקולו יותר מתיקונו

“Because of anger, strange and exaggerated actions are taken, which result in more destruction than repair.”

The Netziv’s marshals a Gemara in Massechet Taanit to make root his approach in the teachings of Chazal.

ואמר רבא האי צורבא מרבנן דרתח אורייתא הוא דקא מרתחא ליה שנאמר (ירמיהו כג, כט) הלא כה דברי כאש נאם ה’ ואמר רב אשי כל ת”ח שאינו קשה כברזל אינו ת”ח שנא’ (ירמיהו כג, כט) וכפטיש יפוצץ סלע

  • And, incidentally, the Gemara relates that which Rava said: This Torah scholar who grows angry, it can be presumed that it is his Torah study that angers him. Therefore, he must be given the benefit of the doubt, as it is stated: “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:29). And similarly, Rav Ashi said: Any Torah scholar who is not as hard as iron, but is indecisive and wavers, he is not a Torah scholar, as it is stated in the same verse: “And as a hammer that breaks rock in pieces” (Jeremiah 23:29).

Yet, the, despite this rabbinic praise of the toughness of the Torah scholar, the Talmud then offers a counterbalance.

אמר רבינא אפ”ה מיבעי ליה לאיניש למילף נפשיה בניחותא שנאמר (קהלת יא, י) והסר כעס מלבך וגו

Ravina said: And even so, one is required to teach himself to act gently, as it is stated: “And remove anger from your heart, and put away evil from your flesh” (Ecclesiastes 11:10).

We are living in a time when we do not appreciate the value of retreat even if the only way forward leads to, as the Netziv noted, more destruction than repair. We pay a high price for this and it erodes our social fabric.

It is interesting that the Netziv did not question the ethics of Shimon and Levi’s actions (as much as we may find their killing of every mail difficult to explain), his point is much more subtle and has nothing to do with legality. The Netziv reminds us that even if we act in accordance with the law , there are still things that we might do for a good cause that are not worth the ultimate price we pay.

We can learn from God who surrendered to the Rabbis in the case of the Tanur Shel Achnai. Of course, God was “right” and has a just cause, yet, He practices retreat for the sake of the greater good.

 


The Voice of Women in Holy Song and Prayer by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 12, 2018

In the beginning of this past week’s Torah portion,Toldot, the Torah writes, “These are the generations of Isaac…” Surprisingly, we are told in the next verse that there are no generations, that Rivka, like each of our ancestors, was  barren. The Torah comes to describe the empty space of no children and the need for prayer to fill that void. In the next verse Isaac prays for a child opposite Rebecca which Rashi explains to mean that Isaac and Rebecca each prayed on their own, he in one corner of the room and she in the other, – i.e. the first Shul.

 

Though communal prayer is something comparatively recent in Jewish history (since the destruction of the Temple), nevertheless it seems to play a central role in our public Jewish life today, and procedural concerns surrounding it can loom large in a community.   Recently, I was asked about women saying kaddish in shul and whether hearing the voice of a woman saying kaddish is of halachic concern.

 

The question of whether a woman may say kaddish for a loved one has been treated extensively in halachic literature.   Raav Yosef Henkin famously permitted it and this has become the normative practice in many modern orthodox Shuls, and indeed, according to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, was always the custom going back many generations.  Even so, for some the voice of women saying kaddish along with men sounds incongruous in an orthodox synagogue.

 

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef wrote the following on the question a woman saying Birchat Hagomel in Shul with regard to the voice of women (Yichave Daat 4:15):

 

….In our times (genders are less separate) and women are together with men in the marketplace, and additionally, a Shul is a place where we stand in awe of the Divine, thus we do not have to worry about hearing kol ishah, the (sensual) voice of a woman (in shul).  As the Bene Yissaschar writes, in a place where the Divine presence is revealed, men and women may sing together. Furthermore, we can prove that a woman’s (singing) voice is not problematic in a synagogue from the following piece of Talmud (Megilah 23a): “All are called up for the seven aliyot to the Torah, even women….Though we do not do this due to kavod hatzibur, we see that in the essence of the law it is permitted.  Why is this not a violation of hearing a woman’s singing voice?…We thus must conclude that in a holy place the Rabbis were not worried that the singing voice of a woman would result in sexual thoughts.”

 

Rav Moshe Feinstein wrote the following regarding women coming to the Beit Midrash to say kaddish where there is no mechitza (Igros Moshe, OC, 5:12):

 

“Regarding the question of the need for a mechiza outside of a Beit Kineset, for instance in a house of mourning or in a Beit Midrash (where there is no mechitza) in which people pray on weekdays or at mincha on Shabbat …In all previous generations the custom was that at times a needy woman would come in the Beit Midrash to collect tzedaka or a woman who was mourning to say kaddish…If a woman will be coming every shabbat regularly to mincha then we should not be lenient and should require a mechiza.  If it is only periodic then perhaps we would permit her to attend without a mechiza, even up to two women, but more than two would require a mechitza.”

 

Recently a visitor in my Shul from a Charedi community in the New York area commented to me:  “I know there is halachic writing both ways about women saying kaddish. I am not addressing that. I am a Chasidisha yid from ____ and tonight as I was leading the davening in your shul it came time for Kaddish.  Suddenly not only were men saying kaddish but women also. In my community men and women do not interact socially at all. But, I thought to put myself in the shoes of the women in your shul work who in the larger world, work with men and lead organizations of men.  For them to walk into a shul and sit behind a mechitza must be very strange.”

 

Several years ago a woman in the process of converting asked me why in my synagogue women sing along with men during the davening while in other Orthodox shuls she had been to they do not.  I told her in Judaism there are opinions which do not allow women to sing in the presence of men and there are opinions which do allow women to sing before men in shul. When it comes to the honor of heaven, to involving all Jews in prayer, we must follow the halachic opinion which allows this.  If we do not, we may think we are being strict with regard to not allowing the voice of women in front of men but we are being lenient on prayer itself and its level of inclusion and inspiration, thus reducing the Kavod Shamayim, the Honor of Heaven.

 

As with all halchic decisions, when strict in one area we are simultaneously lenient in another.  Thus, we must weigh both sides very carefully to be sure we are producing the most kavod shamayim, honor to God, in guiding the Jewish people.

 


The Secret of Jewish Unity Rabbi Dan Margulies

November 5, 2018

In the days following the Pittsburgh shooting, that tragically left 11 of our Jewish brothers and sisters dead and many others and law enforcement officials wounded, and which brought reports of still further anti-semitic vandalism and other hatred around this country, I have drawn some strength and resolve from a rather odd source: a fantastical legend recorded in a medieval Talmud commentary.

The Talmud, in the midst of the main discussion of the intricacies of the mitzva of tefillin (phylacteries) in tractate Menahot (37a) records that the sage Peleimu raised the following dilemma in a conversation with Rabbi Yehuda haNasi:

?מי שיש לו שני ראשים באיזה מהן מניח תפילין

A person with two heads—on which should he wear the tefila shel rosh?

The student of Talmud is usually prepared for questions and dilemmas which push the envelope, which test how far a law or legal principle can be applied, but even to the seasoned scholar, this seems a bit too much. Really? A man with two heads?

The Tosafot here comment (s.v. O Kum):

בעולם הזה ליכא אבל …

In this world there are no such people; however …

And with that “however” the Tosafot introduce the following story (the full version presented here is preserved in the Shita Mekubetzet of Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi Menahot 37a #18):

The demon-lord Asmodeus (Ashmodai) wanted to test the judicial prowess of Shlomo Hamelekh, so he brought up from the netherworld a man with two heads. And over the years that followed that man married a human woman (with one head!) and had several sons. Some of the sons took after their mother and bore only a single head. And some took after their father and bore two heads. And when their father died, the brothers with two heads tried to claim each a double portion of the inheritance—to be counted as two individuals not one.

To resolve their dispute, they came before the ever wise Shlomo for judgement. How was Shlomo to determine if these two-headed men were to be considered each a single individual or each as two individuals who happened to share a body? Shlomo in his wisdom determined a cleaver plan. He boiled a pot of water, and blindfolded one of the head, and poured the boiling water on the other. He noticed that both heads cried out in pain. Shlomo said, “This is proof that both heads grow from a single root.” Thus the two-headed men were judged each as a single individual.

Shlomo was able to determine what it means to be a single individual, a single entity, to be united by testing the response to suffering. How do we—the Jewish people—respond when some of our brothers and sisters are suffering? When they are mourning? Even if we are not those immediately affected‚ even when we live in New York and the tragedy is in Pittsburgh or when we live in america and the tragedy is in Israel, if there are Jews in pain then we are all in pain. That is what it means for us to be one people. That is what it means for us to be united.


Giving a Voice to the Silenced: #MeToo One Year Later; By – Rabba Claudia Marbach

October 29, 2018

The MeToo movement is a year old, but the abuse of women is much older. Bereshit provides numerous examples of women in uncomfortable sexual situations. As usual, the Torah does not reveal  the interior experience of its characters, so the midrash comes to fill that gap.

When Sarai is taken into the palace of Pharaoh, the Torah tells us only וַתֻּקַּ֥ח הָאִשָּׁ֖ה בֵּ֥ית פַּרְעֹֽה׃the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s palace (Gen. 12:15). The midrash, in contrast, acknowledges her anguish and her sense of abandonment and violation:

אף היא אמרה רבונו של עולם אברהם בא עמך בהבטחה, מפני שאמרת לו ואברכה מברכיך (בראשית יב ג), ולא הייתי יודעת כלום, אלא כיון שאמר לי שאמרת לו לך לך, האמנתי לדבריך, ועכשיו נשארתי יחידה מאבי ומאמי ומבעלי, יבא רשע זה ויתעולל בי, עשה למען שמך הגדול, ולמען בטחוננו בדבריך!

Sarai, cried out, saying: “Master of the Universe! when I heard from Abraham that You had told him, ‘Go forth,’ I believed in what You said. Now I remain alone, apart from my father, my mother, and my husband. Will this wicked one come and abuse me? Act for Your great name, and for my trust in Your words. (Tanhuma, Lekh Lekha 8).

In the midst of Sarai’s MeToo experience, she calls out to God with righteous indignation. The events that had led her to this moment were not of her own making; God had made a pact with Avraham to which she was at best a passive participant. Now, she demands, it is God’s job to make things right. The outcome is reported in the Torah:

וַיְנַגַּ֨ע ה’ אֶת־פַּרְעֹ֛ה נְגָעִ֥ים גְּדֹלִ֖ים וְאֶת־בֵּית֑וֹ עַל־דְּבַ֥ר שָׂרַ֖י אֵ֥שֶׁת אַבְרָֽם׃

But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his household with mighty plagues on account (of the words) of Sarai, the wife of Abram. (Gen. 12:17)

The midrash thus reads Pharoah’s affliction by God as the direct result of Sarai’s demands. The midrashist continues:

אמר לה הקב”ה, חייך אין דבר רע נוגע ביך, שנאמר לא יאונה לצדיק כל און ורשעים מלאו רע (משלי י:כא), ופרעה וביתו אעשה בהן דוגמא

And God said to her, “By your life nothing bad will touch you, as it says ‘No harm befalls the righteous, But the wicked have their fill of misfortune.’(Proverbs 10:21) I will make an example of Pharaoh and his household.

How contemporary it seems that the midrash not only seeks to punish Pharaoh but to publicize his misdeeds. Yet while Sarai was being threatened within the palace, a place with many people, no one answered  her cries — or perhaps they chose to ignore them, out of fear or indifference.

Then, as now, one of the hardest questions was to determine whether consent had been given. If in the field, the Torah tells us (Deut. 22:23-26), consent is presumed not to have been given because if a woman called out she would not have been heard. The clear implication is that a woman who does not cry out must have consented.

Commenting on this pasuk, the Chizkuni (13th century France) doubts this implication, and recognizes a different possibility:

אילו צעקה לא היה אדם מושיעה והיתה יראה פן יהרגנה. אם כן ספק הוא לן אם נתרצית אם לאו ומספק אין להרגה דספק נפשות להקל.

If she had cried out no one would save her and she would fear for her life. Therefore, whenever there exists doubt about the victim of a rape having consented tacitly, no court will punish her.  

Sounding very modern, the Chizkuni recognizes, psychologically, that silence does not constitute consent. But he does not extend his reasoning to the case of the city. The  presumption of the Torah is that when one cries out in a city one will be heard and saved. Today, though, city life seems more isolated and private than the cheek-by-jowl existence of ancient times. Our city spaces can be inaccessible,more like the field of old, and in them, voices are not necessarily heard.

The MeToo movement is giving volume to silenced voices. The Torah instructs us to listen to those with no voice — the stranger, the widow and the orphan — and to address injustice. Just as God listened to Sarai, we should strive to listen carefully not only to what is said, but also to what is unsaid and unable to be said.

 


What Was The Sin of Sedom? By: Rabbi Dan Margulies

October 24, 2018

A perennial question which every commentator must grapple is the question of identifying exactly what was the sin of sodom its people. Why did they deserve to be destroyed? What was the failing of their society? One answer which deeply resonates with me, and which I think can serve as a lens for examining broader hashkafic themes was given by Rav Moshe Avigdor Amiel ztz”l.

As his starting point to answer the question Rav Amiel took the mishna in Avot (5:9):

ארבע מידות באדם: האומר שלי שלי ושלך שלך זו מידה בינונית; ויש אומרין זו מידת סדום. שלי שלך ושלך שלי עם  הארץ. שלי שלך ושלך שלך חסיד. שלך שלי ושלי שלי רשע

שלך ↓          שלי ← שלי שלך
שלי רשע עם הארץ
שלך בינוי או מדת סדום חסיד

According to the mishna there are four archetypal character types based on how one relates to their own possessions and how one relates to the possessions of others. One to whom “mine is yours and yours is yours” is a hasid—pious. One for whom “mine is mine and yours is mine” is a rasha—wicked. One for whom “mine is yours and yours is mine” is an am haaretz—ignorant, foolish, plebeian. These are less interesting than the final archetype. The mishna gives two alternate interpretations of a person for whom “mine is mine and yours is yours.” The stam mishna considers this person a beinoni—an average individual. However, the mishna relates that others declare—yesh omerim—that this is the trait of Sodom.

Rav Amiel was troubled by the fact that the opinion in the stam mishna and the opinion of the yesh omerim are such polar opposites. It seems as if the stam mishna sees this attitude as relatively benign while the yesh omerim condemn it harshly. Rav Amiel suggested a novel way to read the mishna that harmonizes this tension and results in the mishna reading as a singe message. He would have translated  … האומר as “If one person says ‘Mine is mine and yours is yours’ it is an average trait” but …  ויש אומרים “… as soon as there are multiple people who say ‘Mine is mine and yours is yours’ it is the trait of Sodom.” According to Rav Amiel, a society can function and can sustain a basic ethical underpinning if there is a critical mass of hasidim in the society, whose generosity and altruism support the needy around them. As soon as there are too many benonim in the society, as soon as there are many who are guided by indifference and selfishness the society will collapse under the weight of its own iniquity.

I think this four-part classification (so common in Avot) and in particular the ambiguity in the fourth class are a useful lens for examining a core question that lies at the heart of many hashkafic debates today, and for isolating an orienting principle for a Modern Orthodox outlook, based on a story told by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein ztz”l. (N.B. When I posted this story on Facebook on Tuesday it received over 40 “likes” and “loves”).

“A couple of years after we moved to Yerushalayim, I was once walking with my family in the Biet Yisrael neighborhood, where R. Isser Zalman Meltzer used to live. For the most part, it consists of narrow alleys. We came to a corner, and found a merchant stuck there with his car. The question came up as to how to help him; it was a clear case of perika u-te’ina (helping one load or unload his burden). There were some youngsters there from the neighborhood, who judging from their looks were probably ten or eleven years old. They saw that this merchant was not wearing a kippa. So they began a whole pilpul,based on the gemara in Pesachim (113b), about whether they should help him or not. They said, ‘If he walks around bareheaded, presumably he doesn’t separate terumot u-ma’asarot, so he is suspect of eating and selling untithed produce …

“I wrote R. Soloveitchik a letter at that time, and told him of the incident. I ended with the comment, ‘Children of that age from our camp would not have known the gemara, but they would have helped him.’ My feeling then was: Why Ribbono shel Olam, must this be our choice? Can’t we find children who would have helped him and still know the gemara? Do we have to chose? I hope not; I believe not. If forced to chose, however, I would have no doubts where my loyalties lie: I prefer that they know less gemara, but help him.

“… When all is said and done, you have to be guided not by what you love; you have to be guided by Torah. And the Torah tells us what is good: ‘… to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God. (Mikha 6:8)”

I find this story powerful because through the use of a strawman it isolates a core divide between “our camp” and other approaches to Judaism. Indeed, Rav Lichtenstein’s typology can be aligned with the one proposed in the above mishna, and developed by Rav Amiel. Rav Lichtenstein’s ideal, those who would help the man and know the sugya in the gemara we can call the hasidim who say “mine is yours and yours is yours.” Those ignorant of the contents of the gemara who would refuse to help the man are the mishna’s reshaim who say “mine is mine and yours is mine.” Rav Lichtenstein’s critique is thus. There are people who know the gemara, and based on it would refuse to help the man. In his strawman depiction, this attitude is embraced by the haredi street (even if not necessarily endorsed by its leadership). His own humanistic ethical answer to the dilemma is to see this behavior, not as that befitting a benoni but as that of Sodom; to see it not as simply less than ideal but deeply flawed and more problematic than the ignorance of the am haaretz.

In a scenario guided by both universal ethical principles and the laws of God’s Torah, the am haaretz is ignorant of the Torah but guided by enough basic ethics to decide to help the man. One guided by midat Sodom uses the technicalities of the Torah to skirt the ethical imperative; afterall, midat Sodom is not as bad as being a rasha. According to Rav Lichtenstein, the ideal is neither of these. The ideal, somewhat paradoxically, is to know the laws of the Torah well enough to be able to formulate the argument that one is exempt from helping the man. And then to take up the ethical imperative to help him nonetheless. To hold fast to nothing but the abstract law of the Torah, under this model, is not even the bare minimum. It is a failure. In order to achieve the heights demanded of us, to make ourselves hasidim, we need to transcend what is halakhically/legally required and contemplate the ethical requirements we have as well.

In Torah, we can suggest, there is no supererogatory, because in fact the super-erogatory is actually just “erogatory” (cf. Bava Metzia 83a). We have a mandate to exceed our mandate. And so “mine is mine and yours is yours” isn’t enough; it’s significantly less than enough. And the false premise that it could be enough is the kernel of what it takes for a civil and just society founded on Torah principles to decay into the indifference and cruel selfishness of Sodom.